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Participate, Or Be Dictated To

JOHN MORRISS

EDITORIAL DIRECTOR

Two news items you may have missed from the U. S.: Item 1: Carbon dioxide is a pollutant.

No, this isn’t some off-the-cuff statement from a tree hugger. It’s the law, according to a ruling in a case that went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court in 2007. That means that carbon dioxide is subject to regulation by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and that steps must be taken to reduce it. The EPA had previously failed to regulate CO2, a decision which the court said was as “arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise not in accordance with law.”

In other words, the U. S. has no choice but to reduce CO2 emissions.

As we learned from a recent trip to the U. S., farm policy analysts are telling farmers that they should go along with Congress and the Obama administration and participate in the process of developing a CO2 reduction policy. If they fail, CO2 must still be reduced, and the EPA will be in charge of designing the rules.

For a Canadian farmer, the terms “Environment Canada” or “DFO” (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) may provoke mild discomfort, but let’s face it, their enforcement of regulations is somewhat subject to political whims.

For a U. S. farmer, the initials EPA are more likely to inspire terror. Despite any laxity that might have prevailed during the Bush administration (which was not known for being fussy about the rule of law), in the U. S., the EPA plays for keeps. In fact, if you see that a company is violating EPA rules, you don’t go after the company, as we would in Canada. You go after the EPA, which can actually be sued for not enforcing its regulations, which are often more stringent than ours in Canada.

In short, CO2 is going to be regulated in the U. S., probably through a cap-and-trade system. U. S. farm groups are going to get on board so they can at least be paid for storing carbon through zero tillage and other means. If Canada doesn’t get on board with at least an equivalent system, guess what implications that has for what remains of Canadian agricultural exports to the U. S.?

Item 2: Wal-Mart is developing a Global Sustainability Index for its suppliers.

Like the EPA – probably even more so – Wal-Mart plays for keeps. Just ask any supplier with the mixed blessing of having a contract with the world’s largest retailer. You get volume, but in exchange for razor-thin margins and playing by Wal-Mart’s rules.

Which means “Global Sustainability Index” isn’t just the kind of meaningless jargon we often see in press releases. Wal-Mart is just one of many large companies that see that a reduced environmental footprint is just good business, if not a legal requirement. These companies know that it’s all very well to change incandescent light bulbs to fluorescents and drop the temperature in the office by a degree or two, but when it comes to saving energy in the food business, the real percentage is elsewhere. That means in farm fields, where crops are produced using immense amounts of diesel fuel and natural gas in the form of nitrogen fertilizer.

Wal-Mart has delivered a 15-item questionnaire to 100,000 global suppliers, with questions on four areas, including energy and climate, natural resources, material efficiency, and people and community. The company is asking its top-tier U. S. suppliers to respond by Oct. 1 and is developing a timetable for suppliers in other countries. That will include Canada.

Both these news items are indications of a trend which is likely to affect Canadian farmers, and sooner rather than later. We’re not just talking specialty or niche products. The day may not be far off when your cereal and oilseed fields may be subject to an annual inspection, and you’ll be required to keep meticulous records of your agronomic practices and input use.

This will especially be the case if you’re being paid to store carbon, such as by restoring cropland to pasture or converting to zero till.

So far, that idea has generated a superficial “sounds good to me” from Canadian farmers and their organizations, but as is so often the case, the devil may be in the details. Supposing you convert to zero till for 10 years and then decide to cultivate for a year. Will you have to buy back the credits? Darn right.

Will other greenhouse gases be part of this system? Will methane – a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 – be included? What does this mean for cattle feedlots and liquid manure lagoons? Will they have to buy credits?

All this is coming to a quarter section near you. The temptation for farmers may be to invite climate change skeptics such as Tim Ball to more meetings so they can tell you this is all a plot by a bunch of granola munchers to put you out of business, and that you should just go home and feel good about how you’re feeding the world.

Granola is big business these days. As the largest food retailer in North America, Wal-Mart is probably the biggest granola retailer too. Granola is made from the grain you grow on your farm. As the farmers in the U. S. are being told, you can either get on board and help make the new rules, or you can have someone else make them for you. [email protected]

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